Prospecting for Reality TV in Alaska

The producer behind Deadliest Catch and Bering Sea Gold has found success in an unlikely place.

Phil Segal is not the sort of guy you expect to see in Alaska. For one thing, he’s British. But it’s not just that. The guy helped develop Twin Peaks while at ABC, rebooted Doctor Who back in England and —not content to be a simple, successful exec—spent the early part of last decade directing small-budget films. He didn’t go to Alaska to get away or stake a claim. He went to Alaska to prospect for television.

Segal is the CEO of Original Productions, the company that produces Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Bering Sea Gold, and Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice for the Discovery Channel. As such, he traded a career creating drama for a career finding it—and he says the “Last Frontier” is the best place he can imagine to do just that.

“The thing about Alaska that’s unique is the sense of freedom and isolation,” says Segal. “More people disappear in Alaska every year than in any other state and others come to just drop out. It’s one of those places where your neighbors won’t judge you or get in your business and that sense of freedom is actually in the landscape. Think about the mountains.”

Segal adds that Alaska is one of the few places where even outrageous rumors are worth checking out. Bering Sea Gold, which spotlights the lives of underwater gold bugs working in the dangerous waters off Nome, came about after Segal heard tall tales of big underwater strikes while filming a special on the Iditarod, which ends in the city of 4,000 that proudly declares itself the world’s largest gold pan. Were the stories accurate? Not quite, but Segal was introduced to yet another subculture defined by risk and reward. Then he met the divers who keep working in winter.

“We’re always meeting great characters and they’re generally working class,” says Segal. “They sometimes don’t know they have interesting lives, but we do. They do extraordinary things.”

Segal is something of an unintentional populist. The stories he tells glorify ordinary lives—or those lives that can pass for ordinary north of 54°40′. It’s the epic scale of normalcy that draws Segal back to Alaska, where he can tell stories that people can both relate to (men go to work) and gawk at (men go diving under several feet of ice). The fact that Segal is looking in on his subjects’ lives rather than fundamentally changing them, makes his relationship with his stars substantially different than Simon Cowell’s with the singers on American Idol. “We’re intruders in these peoples’ lives,” says Segal, “and it’s not like they’re getting rich quick. As long as we portray them honestly, they trust us and let us in.”

Though filming real life has its drawbacks—several main characters have abandoned Original’s productions—Segal is almost crushed under the weight of its advantages. Compared to scripted television, the process of creating a reality show is shorter and, in many ways, more creative. Instead of sitting through meeting after meeting, Segal heads north and films. Casting is about “putting as many colors on the canvas as we can” and the stakes are high, real, and transcend ratings. The thing Segal has learned after 35 years creating and burring TV shows and 15 years making reality television: Drama thrives in the cold.

“We haven’t had any failures in Alaska,” he says.

Photos by Discovery Communications